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September 16, 2013

Olson, 1997 Wildcats to relive title game on big screen

Before every home game, the introduction on the videoboard above the McKale Center court reminds the Arizona crowd which team delivered Tucson its lone men's basketball national championship.

Now, former head coach Lute Olson and members of the 1996-97 Wildcats will relive each second of the title-clinching, 84-79 win over Kentucky - and it will be shown on the big screen at the Fox Theatre in downtown Tucson.

In an event organized by the Primavera Foundation and Arizona undergrad assistant coach Joseph Blair's charity, most of the team will reunite Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. for a viewing party of the game. The event is open to the public, and general admission is $25. A VIP ticket, which includes a special pre-viewing reception at 6 p.m. with the players, drink tickets, food and special seating, is available for $100.

Michael Finklestein, a chief development officer for Primavera, said the VIP tickets are nearly sold out. Tickets can be purchased at 97cats.com.

The Fox Theatre is located at 17 W. Congress St.

"I think it's going to be exciting," Olson told GOAZCATS.com. "The players always enjoy coming back to Tucson, and I think they'll feel really special with that entire game being shown on the big screen."

Most of the players are confirmed to attend, Blair said. Josh Pastner, the former walk-on who now is the head coach at Memphis, told GOAZCATS.com via text message that he will not be in attendance. Blair said he is still reaching out to others, including starting point guard Mike Bibby - a key freshman who produced 19 points, nine rebounds and four assists in the victory.

Those confirmed for the event include: Olson, Miles Simon, Jason Terry, Eugene Edgerson, A.J. Bramlett, Bennett Davison, Donnell Harris, John Ash, Michael Dickerson, Quynn Tebbs, Jason Lee, Jason Stewart and Justin Wessel.

Olson said he does not reflect on the special night at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis too much, other than to say "pretty much anything could have happened" heading into overtime. There have been times some of his former players stop into town and revisit the memories, but that's as far as any reminiscing goes. The team will likely do so once more after the event, when Olson and the team head to Blair's house for a private get-together.

But there is one moment from March 31, 1997 that stands out in Olson's mind more than 16 years and five months later, and it is perhaps the signature image of the entire tournament and one that will never leave the memory bank of anyone who remembers watching the telecast.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Simon, the most outstanding player who scored a game-high 30 points and knocked down 14 of 17 free throws, crumpled to the floor over the game ball until the final horn sounded. With a big smile on his face, Simon then popped to his feet and clutched the ball to his chest, directly under his chin.

"I think that's probably the thing that I think of first," Olson said.

The idea for the event was hatched about a year ago, and it came at the expense of Finkelstein's depression following the 2005 contest between Arizona and Illinois.

With a trip to the Final Four at stake, the Wildcats coughed up a 15-point lead with four minutes to play and lost in overtime, 90-89, in a March Madness classic.

Finkelstein painted a somber, but exaggerated picture of someone who essentially went into mourning and wouldn't leave his bed after the loss. As therapy, Finkelstein and four of his friends, described as "hardcore" UA fans, got together to watch a replay of the 1997 championship victory.

Except, they reacted to the game as if it were live.

"We were cheering as if it just happened," Finkelstein said. "It was kind of weird. You know the outcome, and (after) the big shots you're just cheering like crazy.

"So, at that time, I just said, 'Some day in the right position … I'm going to use this.'"

Finkelstein said he knew Blair through a mutual friend, Dina Scalone-Romero, a board member for both Primavera and the Blair Charity Group.

The idea was to create a fundraiser to "reach new audiences" for Primavera, and he sought out Blair's help.

"Here's a guy who would be a perfect partner, a former player," Finkelstein said.

The proceeds will be divided between the Blair Charity Group and Primavera, which provides a pathway out of poverty and helps the homeless transition back into the workplace.

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Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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